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Oculus Rift could transform the way we view the news

“Harvest of Change” is a new virtual reality journalism experiment that continues the trend toward immersive and multimedia news experiences. (Gannett Digital)
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As part of the “Harvest of Change” journalism experiment created by The Des Moines Register and Gannett Digital, a select group of readers wearing Oculus Rift headsets are able to explore news reports about farming in virtual reality, giving them a unique, interactive view of a farm in Iowa that was created to accompany a multi-part series of articles about the changing world of modern farming. In short, it’s what happens when you transform the news experience into a virtual reality gaming experience.

“Harvest of Change” – which is also available as a 2D browser experience for Mac and PC for the general public – enables readers to have a full, immersive experience while exploring a real farm. It took a team of designers, digital media gurus, journalists, videographers and photographers to make this built-to-scale virtual reality experience for the Oculus Rift. As a result, readers wearing the VR device can immerse themselves in photos and videos after unlocking digital graphics they find on the farm — much as if they were playing a video game.

As Mitch Gelman, Gannett digital vice president/product, told Poynter, “This is the way we, as journalists, are going to need to communicate to the Minecraft generation.” The whole point of the experiment, he says, is to show what’s possible for media organizations that are looking to attract the 12-to-29 demographic that grew up playing video games.

It’s easy to see how something like the Oculus Rift could transform the news-reading experience — not just for traditional news-gathering organizations like The Des Moines Register, but also for just about any Silicon Valley tech company that produces a newsfeed. The very way we think about “news” could change.

For example, a company like Facebook could be all over this, given its $2 billion Oculus VR investment. There are already rumors afoot that Facebook is talking to major Hollywood studios about integrating the Oculus Rift into new film projects. Hypothetically, at some point, Facebook could be talking to major news organizations about new journalism experiments.

It may not be enough for people to “share” and “like” news articles — now they might be able to “VR” them — sending them to friends to view as part of a total, immersive virtual reality experience. Instead of just viewing a steady stream of cute newborn baby pictures in your newsfeed without any context, say, you might be able to strap on an Oculus Rift headset and step into the newborn baby experience yourself. Or, instead of just seeing photos of people’s meals in your newsfeed, you might be able to somehow experience that restaurant in virtual reality – walking through the kitchen, browsing the menu, or viewing videos created by other diners who want you to share a special experience with them.

And, that, say virtual reality supporters, is the whole point of it – to be able to experience a situation that you would not otherwise be able to experience on your own. Examples of other virtual reality journalism experiments include two by former Newsweek correspondent Nonny de la Peña. In one, you stand in line at a food bank and experience first-hand as a character undergoes a diabetic attack as a result of extreme hunger. In the other, you can have the immersive experience of knowing what it’s like to live in a Syrian refugee camp.

Of course, all this is still very much in the far-off future. The Oculus Rift experiment in Iowa sounds cool, but also came with a high enough price tag – close to $50,000 – that makes it out of reach except for the largest media organizations willing to take a real risk. Right now, the Oculus Rift is most likely still a long ways from going mainstream.

Ultimately, the question becomes: Is “Harvest of Change” more of a “Second Life” experiment or more of a “Snow Fall” experiment? If it’s the first, then virtual reality will always be a gamer experience and will never go mainstream. If it’s the latter, then it could be a showcase project for what other media organizations could achieve, much as the famous “Snow Fall” experiment by the New York Times inspired numerous similar experiments (including the Post’s “Snow Fall for Cycling” story). In short, maybe the “Harvest of Change” experiment will inspire other news organizations to explore virtual reality.

It’s clear that the virtual reality revolution – not even on most peoples’ radars before the start of the year – has taken on a new life of its own in just the past six months since Zuckerberg announced the $2 billion deal for Oculus VR. Combine that with the huge investment that Amazon made to acquire Twitch this summer – nearly $1 billion for a company that helps people watch other people play video games in real-time! – and it’s clear that there’s something very interesting is going on in the digital zeitgeist. If you buy into the Twitch model, maybe people will pay to watch other people — not necessarily journalists — explore the news for them, much as they watch other people play popular video games. If that ever happens, then we’ll really know that the Oculus Rift has transformed the way we view the news.